When Strangers Come Together

4th December 2020

It’s easy to become despondent if you spend too much time tuned in to the 24/7 news cycle that we’re all subjected to these days. In fact, many people turn to their needlework in order to forget or to give their minds something else to focus on, away from the apparent chaos swirling around us. However, needlework isn’t just an escape. It can also be a powerful driver of unity, bringing strangers together with a common cause – to create something beautiful.

Shannon Downey, an active embroiderer, found herself in a position where she could facilitate this magical meeting of minds. Shannon has always loved going to estate sales. She would seek out and buy unfinished embroideries then take them home to complete them, feeling deep down that

‘…a soul couldn’t possibly rest with an unfinished piece of art out there.’

It was with this belief that she came across a sale from the estate of Rita Smith. Rita had died at 99 years old in Illinois, USA, after living a long, full life in which her quilting, embroidery and crafting had played a large part. At the sale, Shannon had initially spotted an embroidered map of the USA, complete with a beautifully worked representation of each state’s official flower. When the organiser of the sale saw Shannon’s enthusiasm, she was directed to a back room where she found one of Rita’s UFOs that captured her heart.

In the box was a huge quilt project, made up of 100 embroidered hexagon pieces, 50 with the states of the US and 50 with stars. Shannon knew that the project had to be finished so she brought it home. Realising it was too big for one person, she posted out to her Twitter followers, asking for a little bit of help.

Within 24 hours, she had over 1,000 volunteers. She selected 100 strangers from all over the country, then packaged up each unfinished piece and posted them out.

Without any guarantee that the pieces would be completed or even sent back, Shannon was content to rely on the sense of community, togetherness and compassion which seems to run through every embroiderer, and released Rita’s project into the wider world.

This was in October 2019. By December, the groundswell was growing. A stitching bee was organised, where women from all backgrounds, experiences and ages came together to work on Rita’s quilt. The joy and laughter which came out of that experience was probably of far greater importance than the stitches which were completed or the hexagon pieces that were worked on.

Eventually, each piece came back and all of the stitches were put in place. But during the process, the power of women to come together, transcend differences and boundaries and to create something worthwhile was consolidated. Every person who played a role in the completion of this quilt learned something, about herself, about her past, and about all of the other people who were sitting alongside her on the journey.

The completed quilt is now displayed in the National Quilting Museum in Kentucky, USA. It has been the culmination and fulfillment of Shannon’s dream, although it seems pretty clear that the actual quilt was not the main emphasis. Shannon was far more eager to seed a conversation and watch it flow, give strangers a reason to find common purpose, as well as to revive an age-old tradition of women working together on something much larger than each individual. 

When you view the final piece, we think you could all agree that she has had a resounding success in her venture. As she says, ‘Rita is resting in craft peace today’ and the legacy that has been created will live on.

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